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potlatch

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potlatch

Postby Philip Hudson » Wed Nov 27, 2013 3:04 am

Since we have had wampumpeag as a good word, I would like to suggest another Amerind word from the west coast. Unlike modern day spendthrifts, who spend all they have on themselves, Northwestern Amerinds had potlatch contests. Those participating tried to give away or destroy all their property they could in a sort period of time. The one who got rid of the most won. It was to show contempt for affluence. There is some story about Cleopatra doing a similar thing. Claiming she could eat the most expensive meal in the world, she dissolved a very valuable pearl in a mild acid and drank it.

When I was in the university, an economist, fresh out of his PhD, tried to teach economics to a bunch of South Texans. The class was made up of about half agriculture majors, half woman's physical education majors and 2 engineers. In trying to get the class to think outside the box, he described a potlatch. There went up a mighty roar, with shouts of “Commie pinko” and “stupid jerk” coming from the aggies and the PE girls. Only the two engineers, one being I, were interested in the lecture. The others rebelled and hooted the professor out of the room. Later the professor called me and asked me to his office. There he lay his head on the desk and began to cry. "What must I do he asked?" I advised him to resign immediately and go to work for Uncle Sam who needed good economists. I don't know if he joined the g'ment, but his office was cleared out the next day.

Don't mention potlatch in mixed company.
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Re: potlatch

Postby gailr » Wed Nov 27, 2013 10:14 pm

That's a pretty sad story, Philip. :(

Potlatch, and its Midwestern derivation, potluck, have been common terms everywhere I've lived -- whether for extended family holidays/reunions, church events, work 'parties', rec leagues, even neighborhood block parties. Most knew the origin of potlatch, although it was reinterpreted as a communal feast rather than the extravagance of a single person. I've never met anyone who would take personal umbrage at either the original or contemporary Midwestern usage.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Perry Lassiter » Wed Nov 27, 2013 11:58 pm

Years ago I read a sociological work by, perhaps, Ruth Benedict that contrasted three almost opposite cultures, one of which was the potlatch group you mentioned. What the prof needed to do was yell, "Hey guys! I'm describing a culture,not prescribing it. What I prescribe is an F for disrupting class." Ridiculous behavior, even in the fifties.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Philip Hudson » Thu Nov 28, 2013 12:30 am

Thanks to both Gail and Perry for the insight. I never associated Potlatch with potluck. I think there is no causal relationship. Potluck is also a great Texas custom. I was only 18 years old when this outrage happened in class. I didn't know how better to advise a bright economist who was little older than I.

Do not tar all of Texas with the same brush. We have our good with the bad here as does everywhere else. The thought of a "dirty commie pinko" from out of state who even hinted that there were alternate economic models was what caused this rage in my classmates. The two engineers were willing to listen and learn. The others didn't listen before they exploded.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Slava » Thu Nov 28, 2013 8:43 am

Interesting that PH had never associated potlatch with potluck. I've always thought of them as simply regional variations of the same concept. Now I know better.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Philip Hudson » Thu Nov 28, 2013 1:19 pm

I didn't get the association between potlatch and potluck because I never heard the word potlatch until I was grown. I always knew the etymology of potluck being simply pot and luck put together. It is obvious and is not folk etymology. It was first noted in writing in 1775.

When I first heard the word potlatch, as a teenager, I found the source of the word was from Chinook and first noted in writing in 1845. Of course the English version doesn't resemble the Chinook version very much. Initially, it was definitely and deliberately borrowed in reference to the Amerind potlatch. I had no idea it would merge with potluck for some people. It never did in the hinterlands from whence I sprung.

The resemblance is purely coincidental. I have a Chinese student named Young. It is coincidental to her that young has an English meaning as well as a very different Chinese meaning. She caught on to the coincidence and capitalizes on it.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Perry Lassiter » Thu Nov 28, 2013 7:42 pm

I'm with Philip. Never associated potlatch with potluck until on this post. I mentioned above where I first found the word, and potluck I always thought of as a "covered dish" synonym. As pastor to avoid too much pot LUCK, I always announced my approval of scratch chocolate pie and fried chicken, which usually brought them for me. But the meanings are very different. Potlatch is showing off. Potluck is sharing.
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Re: potlatch

Postby Slava » Fri Nov 29, 2013 12:29 am

Just to clarify, I did not mean to say there was a direct association between these two words. All I was saying is that I learned the one first, and just took for granted that the second was a version of the first. As I wrote above, now I know there's a difference.
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